Bucs opt for committee of tight ends in post-’Gronk’ era

TAMPA — He has abandoned any sign of subtlety in his efforts to lure Rob Gronkowski from retirement.

During his “Armchair QB” segment on the Bucs’ official website, quarterback Tom Brady delivers a Hail Mary of sorts when his career No. 1 target asks for a tattoo suggestion in a faux FaceTime chat.

“You need a rising phoenix right across your back, a la Boston’s own Ben Affleck,” Brady tells Gronkowski. “The rising phoenix is about overcoming adversity, rising through the ashes and reclaiming your glory, all of which I hope you really want to do at some point. … Think about returning to glory and what that rising phoenix could do for you.”

Welcome to Tommy’s new show, Armchair QB.

Need life advice? @TomBrady’s got you covered. First up… @RobGronkowski asks the hard hitting questions.

Full episode ➡️ https://t.co/mboBZOcK9p pic.twitter.com/jLfXyEL1TY

— Tampa Bay Buccaneers (@Buccaneers)

At the dawn of the regular season, any such artwork — or an ensuing “Gronk” encore — is a pigment of fans’ imagination. Whether the 33-year-old tight end emerges from retirement a second time this autumn remains ripe for speculation. For the time being, the team must find other ways to compensate for Gronkowski’s receptions (55 in 2021) and rugged blocking.

All indications suggest it will be done by committee.

“It doesn’t just have to come from that (tight end) group, it can come from the wide receivers and the running backs,” first-year head coach Todd Bowles said.

“As a group, between all of them, we’ll try to make up somehow for him. Nobody’s going to look like ‘Gronk’ or even catch like ‘Gronk’ and rumble down the field and run over people, but we have different skill sets that we can make up the catches, and I feel confident in that.”

“There’s only one (Gronk)…But he’s not here, so we just have to play to the strengths of the players we have.” pic.twitter.com/p14T85I9JW

— Sports by Tampa Bay Times (@TBTimes_Sports)

Still, such a collaborative approach begins in the tight-end room, and likely explains why the Bucs drafted two of them last spring and kept four on the 53-man roster: 32-year-old former Pro Bowler Kyle Rudolph, 31-year-old veteran Cameron Brate and rookies Cade Otton (fourth round) and Ko Kieft (sixth).

Individually, none will invoke fear into the opposition the way Gronkowski could. But their collective assortment of savvy, soft hands, stoutness and sturdy blocking chops could meld to form a serviceable replacement for arguably the greatest tight end ever.

“It’s really a unit. It’s not one player, it’s a bunch of different players,” Brady said.

“You’d much rather play with a guy like ‘Gronk’ than not, but he’s not here. We’ve got to do other things and play to the strengths of the players that we have and not think that they were the (same) strengths last year, but re-establish those things. This is what football is all about.”

The bulk of the receptions at the position should come from Brate and Rudolph, currently Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, on the unofficial depth chart. As a complement to Gronkowski, Brate totaled 58 catches for 527 yards and six touchdowns the past two seasons.

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Rudolph, under-utilized in his lone season with the Giants in 2021 (26 receptions), averaged 45 catches for nearly 450 yards and 4.8 touchdowns in his decade in Minnesota, and flourished as an in-line blocker. Like a handful of other veterans, Brady recruited Rudolph, who remained a free agent until signing with the Bucs shortly before the start of training camp.

“He doesn’t mind getting dirty, he doesn’t mind when it’s noisy in there,” offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich said. “He’s a guy that loves the noise, so you always want those types of players, especially how physical and violent of a game we play.”

But the wild card of the group could be Otton, a married 23-year-old who ultimately could evolve into the room’s most complete tight end.

“Nothing has been too big for him, whether it’s special teams, blocking or catching the ball,” Bowles said. “As far as studying his playbook, he’s been on point.”

A first-team All-Pac-12 pick at Washington in 2020, Otton played at Tumwater (Wash.) High for his grandfather Sid, the state’s all-time winningest prep coach (394-131, six state titles in 49 seasons). He was a preseason All-Pac 12 pick in 2021, but played in only eight games due to an ankle injury that required surgery and might have put a dent in his draft stock.

“Cade blocks his (butt) off,” said second-year edge rusher Joe Tryon-Shoyinka, who arrived at Washington in the same recruiting class as Otton. “We grew together (at Washington), we got better together, so we just got a lot of battles, and I know he’s going to come in and contribute right away.”

With the newfound committee approach, he might have to. They all might.

“It is somewhat different not having ‘Gronk,’ but we’ll see,” Leftwich said.

“A lot of young guys have come in and done an excellent job from a preparation standpoint of understanding what to do. Obviously, they’ll get their first taste of the NFL Sunday night, but we like what they’ve done this offseason. We’ll see how it works out, what roles everyone takes, but I like what they’ve put on tape so far.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls

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